' ' Cinema Romantico: The Edge of Democracy

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Edge of Democracy

Though the timeframe of “The Edge of Democracy” is vast and its examination of Brazil’s political history is comprehensive, it nevertheless comes across wholly intimate. Not so much because writer/director Petra Costa has intimate access to key figures, like former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, as the tone she strikes, which is involved rather than objective. I don’t know exactly what constitutes an essay movie, since the criteria for what defines one, near as I have been able to tell, seems nebulous, but that’s what “The Edge of Democracy” feels like, an essay film intertwined with a documentary, which is to say it comes across as a political history fused with a personal one, Costa going through a reasoning and reckoning over what happened but unabashedly from her own vantage point rather than a wide-ranging one, the narration sounding as much like elegiac diary entries as a history lesson. “Brazilian democracy and I are the same age,” she muses, “and I thought in our thirties, we’d be on solid ground.” When “The Edge of Democracy” ends, I swear, you can feel the ground shifting.

“The Edge of Democracy” goes back to the beginning, of Brazil’s democracy and Costa’s life, merging circa 1984-85, when the longtime military dictatorship gave way and Costa was born to revolutionaries who had devoted their lives to fighting the oppressive regime. She then tracks the arc to the election of Lula, celebrated founder of the leftist Workers Party, when democracy bloomed in full even as, the documentary outlines, it simultaneously began to wilt, as susceptible to corruption as any authoritarian’s reign. Costa sees this susceptibility in terms of her own family line, noting how as her crusading parents were imprisoned, her grandfather’s construction company prospered, presumably because it did not turn its cheek toward the dictatorship. It’s a rift she spends the entire movie exploring, underscored visually in how, as she notes this familial fissure, the camera soars above two lines of protestors, right and left literally separated according to their political leanings.

Costa demonstrates a poet’s sensibility, not simply tracing her steps back through time but evincing the push and pull of time itself, how history echoes across the years, introducing us to Lula, in fact, is him at the dawn of founding the Workers Party, black and white archival footage of him smoking a cigarette and giving an impassioned speech from a balcony to cheering throngs, profoundly rhyming with a similar scene much later where he addresses a different throng on the verge of going to prison, everything changing, nothing changing at all. And Lula’s runs for President are recounted in brief snippets of television advertisements, beginning when he is young, with noticeably darker, fuller hair, and ending when he is older, his hair gray, how revolutions can both feel a long time coming and here and gone in the blink of an eye.

We see home video footage of Costa casting her first-ever election vote, for Lula in 2004, her youthful eagerness intrinsically becoming a metaphor for a kind of naivety that democracy would solve everything. This footage also establishes the director’s leftist leanings and admitted lack of neutrality. Indeed, in another scene Costa’s mother converses with Rousseff, after the President has already been embroiled in a corruption scheme. If “The Edge of Democracy” lays out a convincing argument that Rousseff’s impeachment was a coup fueled less by her real transgressions, it nevertheless elides some of her administration’s harder truths, like manipulating the economy to aid her reelection. But if Costa partially lets Rousseff off the hook, she also does not, allowing the disgraced President’s words to her mother speak for themselves, citing an “immense freedom” that comes with being in hiding, suggesting revolutions are best fought outside the existing structure, doomed to fail inside them. And that is Costa’s ultimate takeaway. She counters footage of her voting for Lula, in fact, with a voiceover noting that he won only by compromising, agreeing to work with the business-oriented right wingers. The working class testifying on camera that Lula did good, then, belies the paradox that from the moment Lula was elected, the government was destined to tack the other direction, no matter what.

Early in the film, underlining the overriding personal feeling, Costa shows home video a relative shot of Brasília under construction, literally the foundations of government being erected. The film then cuts to the camera gliding over the structures in something closer to the present, reveling over their unique architecture and what they represent through the prism of the rule of the people. The camera keeps going, though, past the edifices and toward the far ground where protestors have gathered, being chased by riot police. As the movie ends, Costa returns to the same shot, or maybe just a similar shot from another time, suggesting the dream of democracy that she cites at the beginning as a recurring one, an altered consciousness eternally waiting to come true.

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